Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 4 Artist Run Spaces
Log 4 Artist Run Spaces

Christchurch Roundup
Jonathan Nicol


I now find myself hurtling towards the icy depths of a Cantabrian winter, and have been forced to seek refuge in the familiarity of the art scene. Luckily there has been plenty on offer art-wise in my new home town to help stave off the impending winter blues, as the "city-that-sleeps-quite-often" comes back to life after a lazy summer sabbatical.

That bastion of the Christchurch alternative scene (if it's actually possible to use the word 'alternative' without sounding facetious) the High Street Project, have launched their year with a return to the grass roots approach for which the space is best known. This move sees the Project reconsolidating its role in the Christchurch arts community as a venue for the work of emerging artists. As events like last years CASKO series so ably demonstrated, established venues for contemporary art have recently proved ill-equipped to respond to the diversity of arts practice in Christchurch, particularly to the prolific output of art school students and recent graduates, formerly the mainstay of High Street's programme. Partly in response to such initiatives, High Street's rapid fire programme for '98 sees a renewed focus on local work, and an emphasis on experimentation over polished execution-each show runs for only two weeks, and installations in the quirky lift space are now a regular feature.

One of the first in the lineup was Evelyn Hewlett, who's Utter Fluff 'n Stool saw a disused library filing system installed in the middle of the empty gallery, resting on step ladders. Most of its tattered Dewey decimal book cards were missing, and the spaces left behind were stuffed with bulging wads of mould-like clothes' lint, that spilled out onto the floor when the draws were opened. The archaic display looked as if it had been left to mildew away in a museum basement (at least since the introduction of on-line cataloguing), its lint infestation quietly spreading through the draws and corrupting the ordered system inside.

Another show at the HSP, Alastair Crawford's Leisure Bandits, took a more high-tech approach to the invasion of space. Dominating the darkened gallery were giant video projections playing identical computer animations of a 3-dimensional Pacman, who methodically gobbled up a floor plan of the High Street Project. Like a computer virus with a bad case of the munchies, Crawford's Pacman robotically ate away at the gallery space until only the white wall behind the projection remained. Armed with a shield-like portable film screen, the viewer could attempt to ward off the yellow space invader by stepping into the projector's beam and becoming part of Pacman's virtual environment (all very Tron). I found my own attempts were invariably frustrated-as the pixillated yellow sphere loomed toward me I felt like one of the ill-fated ghosts who gets in Pacman's way after he's eaten a power pill.

In a similar vein Phil Price's untitled exhibition at Campbell Grant plays on the viewer's paranoias by replicating the now familiar mise-en-scene of late capitalism: corrupt dealings, faceless multi-national cabals and shadowy puppet masters all play a hand in Price's conspiracist's scenario. Entrance to the opening was by swipe card, and after entering the gallery past a pyramid of 40 gallon drums-no doubt harbouring the toxic by-products of covert military experiments-we find ourselves confronted by a giant militia-style insignia emblazoned on the gallery wall. Arranged under a searing white light in this maximum security display room are several pristine (and undeniably phallic) sculptures . Whether these alien looking objects are miniaturised spacecraft or construction models for futuristic dwellings isn't clear, but I get the feeling their true purpose isn't intended for public disclosure anyway. Conspiracy art à la Mike Stevenson may be starting to seem a bit tired these days, but Price manages to avoid cliché by refusing to give away all the secrets of his paranoiac fantasy. Besides which, we've still got a few years left to work out our pre-millennial tension, and need all the therapy we can get.

During January CASKO organiser David Hatcher a.k.a. Blank Industries gave Christchurch a last dance before departing once more for the land of Beuys und Bierfest. Appropriating the larger-than-life Oxford Terrace Bridge of Remembrance, for two weeks Mr Blank treated unsuspecting clubbers, vampires and graveyard shift workers to a dose of night art; ghostly projected images of World War One banalities illuminating the memorial in a slowly evolving loop. In true Blank style this apparently subtle intervention in the daily life of our fair city was quickly transformed into a media spectacle, that culminated in a hyped-up interview with the artist on One National News (they're really going to have to put more stringent checks in place, cause I swear that boy's used up his 15 minutes already...).

Never slow on the uptake when it comes to art criticism, the news media just couldn't help themselves from discussing A Place to Stand as a heartfelt tribute to the glories of the Returned Servicemen's Association (who incidentally gave their full support to the project). Not to distract attention from the venerable efforts of the home guard, for me A Place to Stand was a work with less to say about World War One than about the cultural function of the giant slab of rock the video was projected onto. The monument in this work was treated like an ideological symbol, a signifier of tourism and commerce as much as a reference to a specific cultural history. "A Place to Stand" might sound suspiciously like a slogan for a new MONZ campaign, but on a more subtle level the title also suggests the familiarity of tourist holiday snapshots (subject standing in foreground, monument in background), a domestication of place engendered by the act of capturing one's surroundings on film. The sentiment of the title seems especially ironic when we consider that "A Place to Stand" is also a rough translation of the Maori turangawaewae. The Maori battalion are honoured by a monument elsewhere in the city, but aren't given much of a look-in at this imperial euro-monument.

For me the highlight of the whole spectacle was a photograph that appeared in The Press, which showed Hatcher posing in front of the memorial-whether knowingly or not, the Press photographer had replicated the style and composition of the quintessential tourist snap, with Hatcher happily playing along as the artist/tourist. It may have taken place in one of Christchurch's most accessible physical locations, but the true measure of A Place to Stand's public nature was undoubtably to be found in its cunning appropriation of the much broader public space of the media.

Christchurch just can't seem to get enough of that outdoor art thing; witness the recent return of the infamous Glitched, a (very) short film festival. This year's effort, coordinated by Alastair Crawford, saw the second story wall of the Alice in Videoland building in High Street transformed into a larger than life screen. The package of z-spot style film, video mini-sagas, and art infobytes, seems to suit the attention spans of the NRG drink generation. With High Street (the location, not the gallery) blocked off and filled to the gills with art punters, there's already talk of making Glitched a more frequent and even touring event. Anything to get us through the winter...

Jonathan Nicol
Winter 1998



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room